Thursday, August 6, 2020

#BookReview: Bronte's Mistress by Finola Austin

Biographic Fiction

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This dazzling debut novel for fans of Mrs. Poe and Longbourn explores the scandalous historical love affair between Branwell Brontë and Lydia Robinson, giving voice to the woman who allegedly corrupted her son’s innocent tutor and brought down the entire Brontë family.

Yorkshire, 1843: Lydia Robinson—mistress of Thorp Green Hall—has lost her precious young daughter and her mother within the same year. She returns to her bleak home, grief-stricken and unmoored. With her teenage daughters rebelling, her testy mother-in-law scrutinizing her every move, and her marriage grown cold, Lydia is restless and yearning for something more.

All of that changes with the arrival of her son’s tutor, Branwell Brontë, brother of her daughters’ governess, Miss Anne Brontë and those other writerly sisters, Charlotte and Emily. Branwell has his own demons to contend with—including living up to the ideals of his intelligent family—but his presence is a breath of fresh air for Lydia. Handsome, passionate, and uninhibited by social conventions, he’s also twenty-five to her forty-three. A love of poetry, music, and theatre bring mistress and tutor together, and Branwell’s colorful tales of his sisters’ elaborate play-acting and made-up worlds form the backdrop for seduction.

But Lydia’s new taste of passion comes with consequences. As Branwell’s inner turmoil rises to the surface, his behavior grows erratic and dangerous, and whispers of their passionate relationship spout from her servants’ lips, reaching all three protective Brontë sisters. Soon, it falls on Lydia to save not just her reputation, but her way of life, before those clever girls reveal all her secrets in their novels. Unfortunately, she might be too late.

Meticulously researched and deliciously told, Brontë’s Mistress is a captivating reimagining of the scandalous affair that has divided Brontë enthusiasts for generations and an illuminating portrait of a courageous, sharp-witted woman who fights to emerge with her dignity intact.

I had mixed feelings jumping into Finola Austin’s Bronte’s Mistress. I love that the story takes its inspiration from a lesser-known chapter of Bronte history, but I was not convinced a novel centered on an alleged affair would work for me. I was hesitant, but I was curious, and the latter ultimately won out. I drown my nerves in my coffee cup, set the radio to Simon and Garfunkle, and jumped on in.

The truth of the affair between Mrs. Lydia Robinson and Branwell Bronte is shrouded in mystery, but the most common variations of the story imply it was the lady who brought the young man to ruin. Austin feels otherwise, and I was grateful for that. It takes two to tango after all, and I do not think possession of a Y-chromosome and a revered surname merits denial of that fact.  

For the record, I was not particularly fond of any cast member, but life is full of challenging people. At the end of the day, I think Austin captured something real her character, something that played to the complexities of unhappy unions, the burden of unrealistic expectations, and the tragic realities of a society that did not allow women their own agency.

Having said that, I was drawn to what Lydia represents on a larger scale. At forty-three, she is older than most historical heroines. Her maturity allowed Austin to play with a unique perspective, and I liked the dynamic brought the narrative. I am younger than Lydia and living in the modern age, but one doesn’t have to look farther than the supermarket tabloids to see how women of a certain age are pushed to the periphery. Social invisibility is a relevant concept, and I admired Austin for tackling it as she did.

Bronte’s Mistress was a little slow for my tastes, but I do not regret the time I spent with it and would have no trouble recommending it to Bronte enthusiasts or fans of biographic fiction.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: August 5, 2020

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